No more debate on climate change? Let’s hope we don’t die of ignorance instead

Why do we hear people tell us that climate change is proven, there is a consensus in the scientific community on it and there is no more debate on the subject? These assumptions scare me more than climate change itself.

Of all the books that exist on the environment, the Menso Guide to Life’s recommendation is the Skeptical Environmentalist by Bjorn Lomborg. His thesis is that the environmental alarmists are wrong. Through careful analysis of data that is available to all of us, we can see that many environmental “problems” such as air and water pollution, depletion of natural resources such as minerals, forests and arable land are not problems at all. Instead, postulates Lomborg, we should put our precious human resources to work tackling the real problems, such as sustainable management of fresh water where it is scarce, and reducing air pollution in big cities in the developing world. We have the data; our next step should be to prioritise. If climate change is a priority, it deserves rigorous debate.

Bjorn Lomborg and I are not cynical people. Cynics are people who automatically do not believe what they hear. Skeptics, on the other hand, are those who question the knowledge of themselves and others, and educate themselves on the many different sides to the issues that concern them. Cynical versus skeptical is the difference between an open and a closed mind. Be skeptical whenever someone attempts to close a debate. Be suspicious even when someone tries to narrow the discourse by, say, dismissing evidence of beneficial effects of climate change or confining blame for it to humans. Discourse that closes minds rather than opening them is not discourse at all. “Consensus” is a pretty suspicious word in itself: it rhymes a little too well with “groupthink”.

Losing argument on any subject implies that you are no longer thinking critically about it. I see argument as an excellent way to gain (and spread) new perspectives. When we have decided there is no more debate, we’d better be damn sure we are not discarding our critical inquiry into the subject along with it. Debate keeps our brains sharp and reminds us that we can be certain about very little. And in case you need an impractical reason to argue, do it as a middle finger to any self righteous environmentalists who refuse to admit they might be wrong.

One problem with any debate is that everyone exaggerates to make their point. If we all take that into account, it is fine; but exaggerating to extremes or lying is wrong. Fearmongering is not the right way to get people on your side because they will turn against you when they see you are wrong. Alarmists want to make the situation more dire than it is because even in the best of times, hardly anyone stands up to act for a cause. If they say that there is no problem (or just a small problem), no one will do anything to combat it at all, and sooner or later it will be a problem. But if they say we’ll all die if we don’t act now, then best case, a few people start conserving energy, etc, and the small or nonexistent problem does not become big. But after fifty years of hearing about the impending crises caused by humankind’s mistreatment of the planet, and fifty years of being afraid of something that has not happened yet has led to three things: a militant environmental movement, a populace that makes misguided choices and a lot of cynicism about preserving the environment.

Many environmental theorists set limits that we have not reached and may never reach. A classic example is the best selling book Limits to Growth from 1972, which predicted we would run out of minerals like gold, silver and zinc by the 1990s, and most significantly, oil would be gone by 1992. In fact, if I had a penny for every chart I have seen with the year we will run out of oil on it, I would live in Beverly Hills. Not only do I think we have another century of oil left, I will go as far as to say we will never run out of oil. If you disagree, I encourage you to read this article and see where I’m coming from. But the limits imposed on us by the alarmists are unnecessary. For many reasons these people do not take into account (partly because no one predicted all the variables and partly because the future is never what we imagine), we have not run out of any of these “scarce” resources. Moreover, these alarmists seem to forget how adaptive humans are.

Part of the alarm comes from a belief that these limits are significant because our economies, our institutions, our society will collapse if we exceed them. Climate change will wreak havoc on the world because we are unprepared and foolish. I don’t believe it for a second. First of all, barring the possibility of a “Day After Tomorrow” type disaster, nothing happens suddenly. As things get worse, we will accord them a higher priority for our time and money, our human resources. Second, we have an unprecedented understanding of science today that, combined with our unprecedented wealth, will enable us to overcome environmental crises if and when they come. Third, humans are smart. We have always found ways of recovering after a crisis or turning crises into opportunities. We find solutions to all of our problems. If the sea levels rise, we will relocate people, and perhaps we will make new land or construct floating structures to live on. If oil runs out, we will create alternatives (for that matter, we already have them). If fish stocks go too low, we will regulate them even more, or we will learn to farm them sustainably. If the air becomes too polluted, we will stop driving and start planting more trees. Before you know it, we will have clean air again.

So stop worrying and get back to arguing like you should be. Here are some things we could be debating.

1. The effects of our behaviour on the environment. That means what are the most likely outcomes 50, 100 and 200 years from now. It includes the good that can come from climate change as well as the bad.

2. How we should allocate resources. If we are going to find solutions, we should know what are the most pressing problems. If we spent all our money on recycling or took every last car off the road we might feel good about ourselves for a while but we would not have solved anything. If climate change is the most pressing environmental issue, we must decide how to allocate resources to take it on.

3. What the individual’s role should be. I have two suggestions. You could live among the trees and the forest creatures, give up your wordly possessions and be at harmony with all nature. If you don’t want to do that, my second suggestion is continue to educate yourself on environmental issues and engage in debate about it with those around you. When we cease learning and debating, we have lost something even more precious than a stable climate.

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One Response to “No more debate on climate change? Let’s hope we don’t die of ignorance instead”

  1. Leor Says:

    Hey Chris,

    Interesting points but they fly in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence. A little skepticism is fine but to say that there is not yet consensus on climate change is to also admit that as humans we’re still trying to fully comprehend gravity and evolution. There has been considerable debate on this issue in political and scientific circles for two decades or more and many of the strongest skeptics have changed their positions based on evidence that has emerged just in the past four years. The consensus is growing, not shrinking but how much consensus is enough? 100%? That’s just not possible.

    There are (and always will be) scientists that do not support climate change theory at all, but most of their counter-theories on why the earth is warming (no scientists argue that it isn’t) have already been proven to be incorrect or based on faulty science. Yet, deniers such as John Christy and Eigil Friis-Christensen have reached celebrity status that I suspect they would not dare change their position at this stage. Despite representing a very small percentage of the scientific community these minority scientific views get equal or greater representation in the media (53% of American mainstream media – according to Al Gore).

    This represents a troubling situation that is emerging – the link between the widespread propaganda out there and some of the largest hydrocarbon companies. This link http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/story?id=2273111 exemplifies some of the underhanded things being done to misinform people about this important issue.

    Your point about exaggeration is true in some sense however, reports by the IPCC (which contains some of the most respected scientist in the world) summarizes all of the peer-reviewed findings to date and many on the Committee have said that for political reasons, the wording of their reports were softened to say things like “anthropogenic activity likely contributes…” instead of more straightforward language like “human activity IS contributing…” This tells us that even the press releases we’re reading, which is based on the best science available and paints a very grim picture is not exaggerated but actually conservative in nature.

    Chris, you say that nothing happens suddenly but the Arctic and Antarctic sea-bottom ice (more significant than surface level ice) is melting at unprecedent rates. Do you not think it’s possible that this will cause rising sea levels? The US could barely adapt to the crisis in New Orleans, how can countries adapt to millions of displaced people if the seas indeed do rise.

    Having said that, you’re correct that the tragedy of global warming really is the fact that it is creeping up on us causing a boiling frog scenario. Perhaps, if it came as just one swift devastating hurricane or country-sized chunk of the arctic breaking off, maybe we would react more fervently. Oh wait…oh yeah, those things have already happened several times already.

    You don’t need to live among the trees and the forest creatures to do something. Although being closer to nature is definitely a good thing. You need to pay attention to your own personal environmental footprint and improve. Not that I’m a superstar or anything but I don’t own a vehicle (I’m part of a carshare program but I mostly bike), I offset the emissions on every flight I take and I have minimized my daily water usage by at least 20 litres. These are really simple and require very little effort. There are a million other things that can be done on an individual level. The company I work for (an oil company) is also working to improve its energy efficiency and is making major investments to not only meet mandatory regulations and voluntary guidelines but also exceed them.

    At the end of the day, it comes down to a risk management issue for our society. The status quo is too risky. If we make investments now to meet future targets, the worst case scenario is that we improve the efficiency of all of our infrastructure at a cost greater than doing nothing, however, if we do nothing, the worst case scenario is the possible extinction of the human species. I’d personally rather risk the first option.

    Leor


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